Author Archives

Lisa Bubert

Odd, Genius, or Something In Between: A Reading List on Writers

An empty chair sits in front of a typewriter and small desk in a desolate wood room with a view.
Getty Images

By Lisa Bubert

When asked to picture a writer’s life, many people envision a cliché: someone holed up alone in a cabin in the woods, writing longhand on a yellow notepad, until they emerge months later with the next Great American Novel™. The coffee forever on brew; the cigarettes overflowing in the ashtray. Cliché or not, I’ve always been a sucker for this image. 

Who wouldn’t want to live a life of eccentric glamour where all you need to be a tortured genius is a pen, a notepad, and a complete disregard for time? Where you can lean into all of your weird idiosyncrasies that are probably a sign of poor mental health but that you insist are crucial to the creative process? Where you can reasonably tell your loved ones not to disturb you because you are daydreaming and they actually respect your daydreams as having literary merit? 

It’s a strange thing to be a writer, to argue with yourself about the way things are and should be, and committing those arguments to paper for others to read. It requires a level of self-awareness shaped by tireless observation of the world, and an internal dialogue picking that same world apart. The best writers out there, with the most recognizable voices and distinct styles, are writers who know exactly who they are: their flaws, their strengths, and most importantly, their oddities. 

Which is why I live for a good writer profile. Give me the weird tics, the turns of phrase, the strange beginnings. Give me the writer in their natural habitat. Give me that artistic magic, the writer as myth. Let me never forget that the voice is hard-won and earned through a commitment to self as art.

The Yellow Trolley Car in Barcelona, and Other Visions (William Kennedy, The Atlantic, January 1973)

A great literary profile is one that captures the subject both in setting and in voice. The profile feels embodied, as though the subject has written it themselves from the outside looking in. This one from William Kennedy captures everything that is Gabriel García Márquez; the debonair aloofness; a sense of humor that feels like an extended inside joke; long paragraphs of description and scene-setting that tell a whole story within a story; perfectly-placed single lines of dialogue that tie everything up in a beautiful literary bow; and, along with all that, wickedly funny lines aplenty. 

This piece is a blast from The Atlantic‘s archival past — originally published when Márquez had just released One Hundred Years of Solitude to great acclaim but was yet to realize the literary success that would be Love in the Time of Cholera. A time capsule at its best. 

It was in January, 1965, while driving from Mexico City to Acapulco, that he envisioned the first chapter of the book that was to become Cien Años. He later told an Argentinian writer that if he’d had a tape recorder, he could have dictated the entire chapter on the spot. He then went home and told Mercedes: Don’t bother me, especially don’t bother me about money. And he went to work at the desk he called the Cave of the Mafia, in a house at number 6 Calle de La Loma, Mexico City, and working eight to ten hours a day for eighteen months, he wrote the novel.

How Hank The Cowdog Made John R. Erickson King of the Canine Canon (Christian Wallace, Texas Monthly, March 2021)

Having grown up on a ranch in rural Texas, I couldn’t not be in love with Hank the Cowdog. There are two formative books I remember from my childhood: Joe Hayes’ adaptation of the La Llorona folktale, and John R. Erickson’s Hank the Cowdog series. La Llorona taught me that there can be ghosts and magic in all stories; Hank taught me that even a little cowdog from Texas belonged in literature. (And that we cowboy types are funnier than most.) 

This profile covers all the bases. It has all the Easter eggs Hank-ophiles have come to appreciate, like the 1980s picture of Erickson looking eerily like Slim Chance, the opening with Erickson face to face with a Western Diamondback, and the picture of Rosie, Erickson’s brown and bushy-tailed cowdog who looks an awful lot like another cowdog we know. The writer, Christian Wallace, perfectly captures the panhandle voice with its off-kilter lilt and understated humor — which in turn perfectly captures John R. Erickson, a panhandle cowboy who holds true to who he is, come hell or high water. 

(I once met John R. Erickson at a Texas Library Conference. I was so excited and verklempt at the sight of him when I shakily asked for an autograph that he signed it and sent me away without charging me, just to get me out of his booth. A truer cowboy there never was.)

Erickson rose early this morning, as he has almost every day for 54 years, to write, or, as he likes to say, “to pull the plow.” At 5:30 a.m. he made the short drive from his house to the one-room cabin that he uses as an office. His headlights shone in the predawn dark, and his two dogs—Rosie, a red heeler bounding with energy, and Daisy, a sweet yellow Lab with an age-stiffened gait—picked their way through tall grass and burned-out cedars alongside the pickup. At the cabin, Erickson made some coffee. Then he got to work.

Some mornings, “work” might mean scribbling replies to fan mail—piles of it—at the folding table that serves as his desk. Other days, he might jot some notes in his journal. But more often than not, he spends the next four or five hours sunk deep into a faded, dust-covered armchair, pecking at the keyboard of his laptop. He works on articles for livestock journals, essays for various websites, and nonfiction books about ranching, cowboying, Texas history, wildfires, and Panhandle archaeology. And twice a year, as the sun eases over the eastern rim of Picket Canyon, Erickson types these words: “It’s me again, Hank the Cowdog.” 

She Changed Black Literature Forever. Then She Disappeared (Imani Perry, New York Times Magazine, September 2021)

I love a literary recluse almost as much as I love a good literary profile. It is a romantic notion, the idea of a writer who has nothing to offer the world but their words. And words are all we will get from Gayl Jones. 

It’s no surprise if Jones’ name is not as familiar to you as other writers with such acclaim to their work. Perry describes her as “transformative,” a writer handpicked for publication by Toni Morrison herself, then editor at Random House. Her work utterly changed the face of Black women’s literature. But with that transformation came the spotlight, and a sense of public entitlement to know everything about Jones, to peek into her life no matter how much she would have preferred otherwise — an impulse to create a mythical story about the writer that was based partly in truth and mostly in assumption. Perry handles all of this with care, calling us out on our assumptions before we even realize we’ve made them, making her the correct choice to write about such a guarded subject. 

Jones’s novels have, from the beginning, cracked open something new in African American literature. Tasked with explaining how and why, without a glimpse or an interview, I sought an alternative. It was second nature to me. I’m a scholar and a writer. I work in archives. So I dug into Jones’s words, gathered from dozens of scattered sources. And there I found her, in cached papers like those of William Meredith, her mentor and friend at Connecticut College; of her Random House editor, Toni Morrison, at Princeton University. I sought out the poems, stories and essays she published in numerous small Black literary journals, the handful of interviews with cherished interlocutors (and some who raised her ire), as well as works she published abroad or by herself over the years. I also looked for her influence, a soul-searching exercise — because she has shaped me as a writer — as well as an exploratory one with my peers who agree that she is a writer’s writer, and more than that, a Black woman’s writer.

Smart Tartt (James Kaplan, Vanity Fair, September 1999)

Remember how I love a literary recluse? Well, Donna Tartt is another that fits the mold, with the added benefit of some Fran Lebowitz-styled fashion where the outfits are androgynous and the signature hair never changes. I may not be a huge fan of Tartt’s prose, but I have to admire her style and commitment to character. 

This profile is doubly interesting in that it’s a look at Donna Tartt before she was Donna Tartt. Even from the first line, Kaplan knows he’s dealing with a strange new literary star: “Donna Tartt, who is going to be very famous very soon — conceivably the moment you read this — also happens to be exceedingly small.” From there, it’s all you would expect from a writer hailing from small-town Mississippi who happens to write like the epitome of a highbrow East Coast WASP. I blame Bennington, clearly. 

Donna Tartt has her own secret history. Her childhood in Grenada should not, must not, be talked about. Bennington places, but no Bennington people, may be associated with her book. McGloin may not be spoken to. The novel itself is a thicket of literary references and inside jokes: the narrator’s surname is the same as that of the Weimar Republic chancellor who knuckled under to the Nazis; Bunny, whose real name is Edmund, has the same nickname as literary critic Edmund Wilson. The hotel where Henry and Camilla go off together, the Albemarle, has the same name as the English Channel hotel where T. S. Eliot, recuperating from a nervous breakdown, revised “The Waste Land.” What does this mean? Perhaps we shouldn’t overinterpret—but then, maybe we shouldn’t under interpret, either. When, pleased with my discovery, I point out the Albemarle correspondence to Tartt, she grows chilly. “I have nothing to say about that,” she says.

The Radical Woman Behind ‘Goodnight Moon’ (Anna Holmes, The New Yorker, January 2022)

As a children’s librarian, I know firsthand the depth of artistry and control of language it takes to write a picture book for children. I also know first-hand how often that artistry and ability is tossed aside by writers who mistakenly believe that picture books must be simple to write. Picture books are high art. And no one understood that better than Margaret Brown, author of the incomparable Goodnight Moon. 

I love this article not just because it does justice to picture book writers everywhere (and to Brown as a poet with a keen sense of how a child sees the world), but because it dispels the myth of picture book writing as “women’s work,” or as something only suitable for shy, quiet, child-friendly rule-followers. Margaret Brown was anything but. In fact, she was a queer rebel who blew right through expectations to create children’s literature still relevant today. She also happens to have had a feud with the most powerful children’s librarian of her time that lasted decades after both of their deaths — and this article has the tea. #TeamMargaret. 

Brown was most taken by the idea of writing for five-year-olds. “At five we reach a point not to be achieved again,” she once wrote in a notebook. In a paper on the topic, she argued that a child of that age enjoys a “keenness and awareness” that will likely be subdued out of him later in life. She went on, “Here, perhaps, is the stage of rhyme and reason. . . . ‘Big as the whole world,’ ‘Deep as a giant,’ ‘Quiet as electricity rushing about the world,’ ‘Quiet as mud.’ All these are five-year-old similes. Let the grown-up writer for children equal or better them if he can.”

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Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Texas Highways, Washington Square Review, and more.

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Editor: Carolyn Wells

Copy Editor: Peter Rubin


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Stranger Things: A Reading List of Unsolved Mysteries

Stairs set into a mountain trail, leading into the mist
Photo: Tim E. White/Getty Images

By Lisa Bubert

The first novel I ever wrote had a mystery at its heart: a disappearance. It was never explained. It didn’t involve any kind of crime. The disappeared never reappeared. The mystery just … was. It was a storyline I was deeply committed to — and one that, as you may imagine, did not lead to a publishing contract.

Unsolved mysteries manage to be as irresistible as they are frustrating, stoking our imagination even while they tease our need for resolution. Faced with a story that refuses to tie everything into a neat bow, we chew on potential explanations until we find the one we like best — the one that satisfies all our biases, the one that allows us to bask in the knowledge that we (and only we) know what actually happened. A lack of answers may be maddening, but it also allows us to rewrite stories to our satisfaction.

As it turns out, not everyone feels that way. People reading my book maintained that the mystery simply couldn’t go unresolved, that there must be a why to the strange thing that had occurred. Was suspending disbelief suddenly something our brains couldn’t handle? Was it so impossible to believe that in this year of our Lord 2022, a mystery could persist?

In their minds, yes. After all, we have science. We have constant surveillance. We leave a digital self-portrait everywhere we go now, a mosaic sketched from location pings and security cameras and the constant tracking of our personal data. Infidelity in your family is no longer just a whispered theory; a DNA test proves it. So, in fiction especially, writing a story with an unsolved mystery often depends on a contrivance, some convenient loss of modern technology. (A character’s laptop died! A power surge took out the router! Someone threw their phone in the ocean!) Cause and effect skew, leaving the reader with a sinking feeling that things are happening because the writer needed them to happen that way — and nothing leaches the enjoyment from reading like awareness of the deus lurking in the machina.

Thankfully, in real life, unsolved mysteries still abound. Whatever happened to Amelia Earhart? What’s up with spontaneous human combustion? Who the heck was D.B. Cooper? Will anyone ever publish my book? (The world may never know!) From paranormal thrillers to fog-shrouded disasters to pedestrian oddities, let the modern mysteries chronicled herein bedevil your otherwise logical mind.

What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane (William Langewiesche, The Atlantic, July 2019)

The question of what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has long been a source of fascination for me. Is it because I still have trauma from that one time we hit turbulence on a flight back from Las Vegas and I was convinced we were all headed for a certain death so I cried to my mother and told her I loved her and then decided that the boy I’d just started seeing would have ended up being my husband if I’ve only had a bit more time? Maybe. (Though I did have more time and he did end up being my husband.) But it’s also because of the same paradox that Langewiesche tugs at in this meticulously reported piece: In a time when it’s nearly impossible for even one person to completely disappear, how is it that a plane full of 239 people could blink off of air traffic radar unnoticed, never to be seen again? The answer — and Langewiesche does propose one, satisfying and unsatisfying in equal measure — is long, complicated, and involves a necessary amount of conspiracy.

The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.

We Two Made One (Hilton Als, The New Yorker, November 2000)

When writing, we’re always challenged to consider external conflicts that are pushing up against internal conflicts and vice versa. But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction — and the call really is coming from inside the house. This story of identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, who would only communicate with each other, hits all the high notes of the deeply weird. Known as “The Silent Twins,” the pair led a strange and reserved existence from the beginning, which was exacerbated by the racist trauma and ostracization they experienced from being the only Black children in their Welsh community. (Hello, external conflicts!) As time went on, the two began to have trouble discerning themselves from each other. “You are Jennifer, you are me,” Jennifer would tell June. June later said, “One day, she [Jennifer] would wake up and be me, and one day I would wake up and be her.” I’d always heard people talk about the phenomenon like it was almost paranormal; however, upon reading Als’ essay, I was surprised to find that the story was less one of mystery and more one of self-preservation under untenable circumstances. The real mystery (or perhaps not, if we choose to look) is why so many storytellers are more willing to see this as a story of the unexplained rather one of oppression.

For most of their lives together, they refused to speak to anyone but each other — a refusal that led to their emotional exile, their institutionalization, and, eventually, to the misguided appropriation of their story by activists and theorists who used it to pose questions about the nature of identity and the strange birthright that twins are forced to bear.

The Exorcisms of Latoya Ammons (Marisa Kwiatkowski, Indianapolis Star, January 2014)

Imagine The Exorcist, but set it in 2010s Gary, Indiana, and add the Department of Child Services. Latoya Ammons’ three children are fatigued, bruised, and frequently missing school. Child abuse? No. Demons? Perhaps. What sounds like a plot perfect for the silver screen unfolds in a daily issue of the Indianapolis Star — a ghost story that comes with receipts. Reported with over 800 pages of official records and interviews with case managers, police officers, psychologists, and a priest, this piece is so fantastical it can hardly be believed — and yet there is so much official documentation that even the strongest of skeptics would have a hard time dismissing it.

According to Washington’s original DCS report — an account corroborated by Walker, the nurse — the 9-year-old had a “weird grin” and walked backward up a wall to the ceiling. He then flipped over Campbell, landing on his feet. He never let go of his grandmother’s hand.

“He walked up the wall, flipped over her and stood there,” Walker told The Star. “There’s no way he could’ve done that.”

Later, police asked Washington whether the boy had run up the wall, as though performing an acrobatic trick.

No, Washington told them. She said the boy “glided backward on the floor, wall, and ceiling,” according to a police report.

Who Shot Walker Daugherty? (Wes Ferguson, Texas Monthly, October 2021)

A classic Texas whodunnit, set against the backdrop of West Texas canyon country: Big game hunters clash with a Mexican drug cartel. Or was it a practical joke? Or a hoax for political and financial gain? Who shot first depends on who you ask; as Wes Ferguson describes it, “the question of who shot Walker Daugherty still feels like a political Rorschach test.” Of all the things Texas Monthly does well, true crime might be its strongest suit. Much of that lineage is due to the legendary Skip Hollandsworth, who has turned out more excellent investigative pieces than I can count. But Ferguson is no slouch himself — and this piece, which brings true crime to his usual outdoor beat, proves the tradition is in good hands.

They were nodding off when they were awakened by a frightening noise. The locked side door of the RV was rattling loudly. It sounded as if someone wanted in. Tinker Bell barked. Edwin jumped out of bed and grabbed his gun. “Who is it?” he later recalled asking. “Hey! I got a gun in here. Go away.”

The door handle shook again. He heard a man’s voice outside the RV: “All we want is the motor home.” The demand, he noted, was delivered in clear, unaccented English. Tinker Bell was growling loudly in Carol’s arms, and she didn’t hear the voice. But to Edwin, the man sounded sinister, terrible. “It was just like the devil was on the other side of that door,” he said later. Then he heard the door rattling again. He shot a single round through it.

The Ghostly Radio Station That No One Claims to Run (Zaria Gorvett, BBC Future, July 2020)

If you’re into Cold War history, espionage thrillers, secret Russian conspiracies, or all three, this story is absolute catnip. Apparently, a shortwave radio station that can be heard around the world has been broadcasting since the 1980s, and nobody knows who is running it — nor does anyone claim to own it. The station mostly broadcasts a long drone interrupted occasionally by a foghorn sound; once or twice a week, voices read out random phrases in Russian. (Russia says it’s not theirs, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .) There are many theories as to what’s behind the station, my favorite being the chilling “dead hand” theory, which states that the station is an automatic system scanning the airwaves for signs of life in the event of a nuclear detonation. If no signs of life are detected in the country of origin controlling the station, a retaliative attack is automatically triggered. Mutually assured destruction, shortwave style. Whatever it is, I’d love to read some spy fiction about it. Solved or not, the story practically writes itself.

Once or twice a week, a man or woman will read out some words in Russian, such as “dinghy” or “farming specialist”. And that’s it. Anyone, anywhere in the world can listen in, simply by tuning a radio to the frequency 4625 kHz.

It’s so enigmatic, it’s as if it was designed with conspiracy theorists in mind. Today the station has an online following numbering in the tens of thousands, who know it affectionately as “the Buzzer”. It joins two similar mystery stations, “the Pip” and the “Squeaky Wheel”. As their fans readily admit themselves, they have absolutely no idea what they are listening to.

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Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Texas Highways, Washington Square Review, and more.

***

Editor: Peter Rubin

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands


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Becoming Human Again: A Reading List for the Extremely Offline

Woman hiding under the blanket, chatting and surfing the internet with smart phone at late night on bed.
Getty Images

By Lisa Bubert 

I’m on a mission to become human again. Not through good deeds, being in nature, or communing with the universe, etc., — no — for me the single most humane thing I felt that I could do was to get off of social media.

Deleting accounts seemed a simple, concrete action to take, but I found it anything but. I’m a freelance writer, reliant on Twitter for pitch calls, as well as the all-important Discourse of the Day. While Instagram’s main purpose appears to be to make me feel terrible, the stories remain helpful for getting eyes on my writing. While Facebook operates as my Rolodex of family and friends, my community bulletin board — increasingly, the only way to learn who’s still alive and who’s dead.

This is known as “social lock-in,” where social networks monopolize our experiences and make it impossible to live our lives outside of the purview of the platform. It’s also a feature of surveillance capitalism, a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff to showcase how capitalism no longer simply controls our purchasing power but manipulates our human behavior at scale. Every search query, every post liked, even the amount of time your eyes spend looking at a specific image on your screen is tracked, quantified, and mined to learn more about you, the decisions you make, and why. That information can then be used against you — to sell you more products, to make you more susceptible to suggestions, to know things about you before you even know them yourself. Thanks to social media, capitalism doesn’t just require cornering the market on household products; powerful, unknown players can now corner the market on democracy for the right price.

As scary as surveillance capitalism sounds, for me, the true fear resides in my slow loss of privacy, and with it my sense of sanctuary.

I’m a librarian — a notoriously privacy-obsessed profession. Librarians have always believed that it is your inalienable right to learn whatever it is you want without fear of anyone looking over your shoulder. We were some of the first to cry foul over seemingly small encroachments on digital privacy, such as individual search queries.

We like to believe that our own personal searches, such as “best exercises to improve back posture,” are small fry — too insignificant to matter. After all, we have nothing to hide. But we must look at the big picture, much the same way that surveillance capitalist companies, like Google, do. Our personal decisions about privacy are hardly private — they have always been a public affair. The more we allow tech and social media companies to chip away at our personal privacy, the more they can commercialize our privacy at scale. Everything, even our most interior sense of self, is for sale.

According to Jaron Lanier, computer scientist, futurist, and frequent tech critic, deleting our social media accounts is “the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times” — and it’s the only way to regain our humanity in an increasingly inhumane world.

Here’s some inspiration on going from Extremely Online to Extremely Offline.

You Are Now Remotely Controlled (Shoshana Zuboff, The New York Times, January 2020)

No one understands the importance of privacy as a public affair better than Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff is the one person who has been repeatedly able to clock the tech economy and call it for what it is, before the rest of us even know what we’ve signed up for. Every time we agree to the mass of terms and conditions of a new digital service with personalization (read: data mining) at its core, we’ve agreed to what Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” Any time I sit down to read a piece by Shoshana Zuboff, I can expect it to be engrossing, brilliant, and frankly disturbing — and this piece (which is essentially a Cliff notes version of her banger of a book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,) takes no prisoners.

The lesson is that privacy is public — it is a collective good that is logically and morally inseparable from the values of human autonomy and self-determination upon which privacy depends and without which a democratic society is unimaginable.

…In the competition for scope, surveillance capitalists want your home and what you say and do within its walls. They want your car, your medical conditions, and the shows you stream; your location as well as all the streets and buildings in your path and all the behavior of all the people in your city. They want your voice and what you eat and what you buy; your children’s play time and their schooling; your brain waves and your bloodstreamNothing is exempt.

The Conscience of Silicon Valley (Zach Baron, GQ, August 2020)

I love a good profile. Especially one on a person as strange, enigmatic, and offbeat as Jaron Lanier — the so-called “father of virtual reality,” and according to this piece, “the owner of the world’s largest flute.” Lanier wrote one of my favorite books, Ten Arguments to Delete Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, a slim little volume that contains just 10 chapters — 10 arguments — and reads like a Buddhist manual written by the dreadlocked Berkeley hippie with a pan flute that Lanier is.

In reading Baron’s profile of him, I am reminded of my own inner child. Lanier, a futurist by nature, is one of the more curious people I’ve come upon, his mind seemingly unadulterated by outside influence — which is why I love this profile showing the weird, wily human he is.

(Lanier) seemed to live somewhere off ahead of us, by the horizon. Now here the rest of us were too.

But all that was only part of the reason I had sought out Lanier, I told him. What I really hoped to do, I said, was to talk about the future and how to live in it. This year feels like a crossroads; I do not need to explain what I mean by this. We are on the precipice of ruin or revolution or both. We are sick of looking at social media, but social media is also maybe driving the most significant and necessary social movement of my entire life. I want to destroy my computer, through which I now work and “have drinks” and stare at blurry simulations of my parents sometimes; I want to kneel down and pray to it like a god. I want someone—I want Jaron Lanier—to tell me where we’re going, and whether it’s going to be okay when we get there.

Lanier just nodded. All right, then.

It’s Not Your Fault You’re a Jerk on Twitter (Katherine Cross, Wired, February 2020)

There are a lot of jerks on Twitter. I like this article because it doesn’t just look at the damaging effects of internet pile-ons propelled by tweet after tweet, it looks specifically at the effects of what Cross calls the “third order” of harassment, i.e., the Discourse.

You know the Discourse. Usually a subtweet about a new argument of the day. A commentary if you will. You have a Twitter account. A thing has happened. You comment on it to signal which side of the Discourse divide you’re on. It’s not a pile-on; it’s just a statement about the situation. But that subtweet, which usually doesn’t directly involve the target of the Discourse, and which may even be supportive of the target, only allows the harassment to continue and grow. Commentary provides longevity, and longevity extends the harmful episode, regardless of what is being said. Twitter’s design allows users to dissociate from the very real human harm they are inevitably causing just by being active on the platform.

The attacks directed at an individual are a metacommunicative shorthand—“I hate Neon Yang” isn’t about Yang, it’s about a suite of ideas that they discursively represent; you can’t @ an idea on Twitter, only a person… This is why even the numerous attempts at “constructive” callouts or criticism in the helicopter story saga, directed at both the original story and Neon Yang in later months, merely added to the pain and fury. The sheer weight and volume of so many people bearing down on an individual all at once becomes powerfully destructive, even if many of those people are being “nice.”

Welcome to Airspace (Kyle Chayka, The Verge, August 2016)

In order to write well, or to create any kind of art that cuts through the persistent noise of human experience, you have to first participate in that experience. There has to be diversity in the aesthetic around you. But the pandemic year left us looking for an aesthetic in an increasingly isolated, and online, world. I scroll through Instagram despite the fact that all the photos are increasingly similar. The algorithm has zeroed in on the aesthetic it thinks I like and serves me photo after photo of the same thing to keep my eyes glued, my time monetized for someone else. By this point, I can’t even tell the difference between what I like and what I’m being fed.

Of all the things I can’t stand about an Extremely Online life, the theft of a diverse and surprising aesthetic burns me the most. (Other than our lives becoming simple data points for someone else’s commodification.) No matter where I go, everything looks the same. This is why I love this article about the increasing “frictionlessness” of the various aesthetics popularized at large — open concept kitchens, industrial design, Edison bulbs over every table — and how the curation of a single aesthetic, specifically by AirBnb, has made it possible to travel from city to city, even internationally, without noticing a difference.

We could call this strange geography created by technology “AirSpace.” It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.

Escape the Echo Chamber (C Thi Nguyen, Aeon, April 2018)

To me, social media increasingly feels like a cult. It doesn’t matter which platform I’m on; people exhibit the same linear thought necessary for cult indoctrination, regardless of topic. It doesn’t matter what I think about a topic; the Discourse has already been decided for me, for all of us. Now, virality, not facts, equals truth. Questioning out loud has become increasingly difficult. As Nguyen notes in this essay, two things are needed for cult thinking to bloom — epistemic bubbles combined with echo chambers — and social media has it in spades. So yeah, we’re in a cult. Time to call our dads.

In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined. The way to break an echo chamber is not to wave “the facts” in the faces of its members. It is to attack the echo chamber at its root and repair that broken trust.

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Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Texas Highways, Washington Square Review, and more.

 


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